Florida Officials Arrest Two People Accused Of Falsifying Signatures For Marijuana Legalization Ballot Initiative

December 26, 2023 · marijuanamoment.net

Florida officials say they’ve arrested two paid canvassers charged with allegedly falsifying signatures on petitions to put a marijuana legalization initiative on the state’s 2024 ballot.

As the state Supreme Court weighs a legal challenge to the ballot measure that was brought by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody (R), the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) said in a news release last week that two individuals are facing multiple felony counts of submitting falsified petitions.

FDLE said that three canvassers are being prosecuted on fraud charges, including one person who was involved in petitioning for an unrelated gambling-related initiative. The department said that “circulators submitted dozens of falsified marijuana and gambling initiatives petitions,” without specifying how many signatures may have been impacted.

“The Florida Constitution is a sacred document by which Florida’s government, voters and citizens are adjudicated,” Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd said. “Florida Law lays out a detailed process by which issues can be submitted to Florida’s voters for consideration before they are added to Florida’s Constitution.”

“To fraudulently misappropriate this process for personal gain is not only illegal but also violates the trust of law-abiding Floridians across the state,” he said.

FDLE Commissioner Mark Glass said that the election process “must remain free from those who would commit voter fraud to champion an initiative or candidate,” and in this case, “paid petition circulators were trying to game the voting system.”

Many campaign petition circulators are paid based in part by the number of signatures they collect, so it’s possible the alleged crimes were carried out for personal financial gain.

A spokesperson for the cannabis campaign, Smart & Safe Florida, told Marijuana Moment that it is “fully supportive of FDLE’s investigation and we pledge to cooperate in any way we can.”

If the allegations are substantiated, they said “we hope the individuals involved are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

The state’s prosecution of the paid circulators is happening more than six months after the Florida Division of Elections announced that activists had submitted enough signatures to qualify for the 2024 ballot.

They turned in nearly one million signatures for ballot placement, well beyond the 891,523 needed, suggesting that the reportedly falsified petitions that are now in question would not meaningfully impact the campaign’s current qualification status.

In order to get on the ballot, an initiative needed valid signatures from registered voters totaling at least eight percent of the district-wide vote in the most recent presidential election in at least 14 of the state’s 28 congressional districts—in addition to the statewide number needed. The marijuana campaign has met the threshold in exactly 14 districts.

That said, even with enough signatures, the question remains how the state Supreme Court will come down on the overall legalization measure, which the attorney general’s office wants to see invalidated ahead of next year’s election.

The court held oral arguments in that case last month. The state’s main argument is that the ballot initiative is affirmatively misleading, in part because she says voters would not be able to understand from the summary that marijuana would remain federally illegal even if Florida moved to legalize.

Moody made the same argument about misleading ballot language against a 2022 legalization measure, and the Supreme Court subsequently invalidated it.

The campaign and supporters, meanwhile, have maintained that the court must respect the intent of the citizen initiative process and allow voters the opportunity to decide on the issue.

Nearly seven out of ten registered Florida voters say they support the marijuana legalization initiative, with majorities of every demographic surveyed in favor of the reform, according to a poll that was released last month.

The multi-state marijuana company Trulieve has contributed more than $39 million to the Smart & Safe Florida campaign to date. As discussed in oral arguments, Moody has accused the company of supporting the measure in order to have a “monopolistic stranglehold” on the state’s cannabis market.

If approved, the measure would change the state Constitution to allow existing medical cannabis companies in the state like Trulieve to begin selling marijuana to all adults over 21. It contains a provision that would allow—but not require—lawmakers to take steps toward the approval of additional businesses. Home cultivation by consumers would not be allowed under the proposal as drafted.

Adults 21 and older would be able to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis, only five grams of which could be marijuana concentrate products. The three-page measure also omits equity provisions favored by advocates such as expungements or other relief for people with prior cannabis convictions.

Separately, economic analysts from the Florida legislature and the office of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) estimate that the marijuana legalization initiative would generate between $195.6 million and $431.3 million in new sales tax revenue annually if voters enact it. And those figures could increase considerably if lawmakers opted to impose an additional excise tax on cannabis transactions that’s similar to the ones in place in other legalized states.

The governor, who is running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has maintained opposition to the policy change and said over the summer that he would not move to federally decriminalize cannabis if elected.

During a recent campaign event, DeSantis suggested that the increase in medical marijuana patients in his state is partly due people using the law as a “pretext” for recreational cannabis use.

Separately, DeSantis signed a bill that took effect over the summer that added restrictions to medical marijuana advertising and manufacturing, prohibiting any products or messages that promote “recreational” cannabis use, while adding more stringent eligibility requirements for workers in the industry.

Additionally, the governor approved a bill in June that expressly prohibits sober living facilities from allowing residents to possess or use medical marijuana, even if the patient is certified by a doctor to legally use cannabis therapeutically in accordance with state law. All other doctor-prescribed pharmaceutical medications may be permitted, however.

He also signed legislation in July banning sales of any consumable hemp products—including cannabis “chewing gum”—to people under 21, an expansion of an existing prohibition on young people being able to purchase smokable hemp.

The organizer of a separate Florida ballot initiative to legalize home cultivation of medical marijuana by patients recently withdrew the proposal, explaining that the campaign raised barely more than $4,000 and couldn’t cover costs associated with trying to qualify the measure.

In the legislature, meanwhile, a Florida Republican senator introduced a bill this month to allow licensed medical cannabis businesses to take state tax deductions that they are barred from claiming at the federal level under an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code known as 280E. (Full Story)

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